Drive into the country can turn into extra-sensory experience

August 28, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

THERE WAS an unwritten rule about family trips. With eight in the car, we normally went no farther afield than the state of Pennsylvania. And for good reason we observed that 200-mile limit: It was about all we could take.

I often think of the Labor Day excursion we made to Philadelphia, which we treated as a distant, distant destination. Baltimoreans don't take to travel without a fight.

Somehow my mother talked my father into driving his 1962 Rambler station wagon to that city, which we normally would have reached on the Pennsylvania Railroad. But my father had a little extra vacation time and my mother wanted a visit with her friend, Bertha Hollander.

My mother, a non-driver, was not always a practical passenger. She often began a trip, say by the time we reached 33rd Street, with a jabbing question to the driver about whether the engine had been serviced, and serviced correctly.

Years later, a friend was driving us to Wilmington, Del., and playing a cassette of Gregorian chant music. Her hearing wasn't the best, and she inquired if the sound of the French monks singing were actually engine trouble. We told her it was French monks singing, and she said it still sounded like engine trouble.

Ever a sentimentalist, she also had routes she preferred. Interstate highways, despite their speed and efficiency, did not fit her idea of a good route. No, she dictated: The proper route between Baltimore and Philadelphia was old Route 1, slow and steady.

Actually, it wasn't a bad idea. She and my father provided sweeping historical commentary through Harford and Cecil counties, which 40 years ago still possessed the roadside charm of old stone coaching inns and funky 1920s gas stations. It was, for the most part, green, rolling and, yes, hot and sticky.

We crossed the mighty Susquehanna at Conowingo, passed the Pennsylvania border, continued through the town of Oxford where we thought it would not be long until we spotted William Penn atop City Hall. My mother had other ideas.

A few miles up the road, she spotted the sign for Star Roses, the farm with acres upon acres of garden roses. She gave a two-word order, "Pull in." For the next hour or more she did her early fall rose bush shopping without worrying about the Rambler's cargo capacity. They claimed quite a bit of space. The field-grown thorny plants were robust and healthy, far larger than the shriveled young rose plants sold in the spring.

They should have been healthy, grown in all that Chester County soil, so famous for the mushroom industry that flourishes in these parts. As we approached Kennett Square, a roadside reality became apparent. It wasn't the rich soil that made the bushy roses so healthy. It was the cow manure that fertilized them so effectively and whose perfume was now another passenger in the Rambler.

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